Adult ADHD is a common but little understood mental disorder. Learn its signs and symptoms. Get options for medical treatment, diet and natural remedies.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — ADHD — is classified as a psychiatric disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
It’s usually associated with children, but is surprisingly common in adults, too.
An estimated 1 out of 25 adults has ADHD, nearly 8 million in the United States alone. (1)
Many adults have had ADHD since they were a child but have not been professionally diagnosed.
Adults with ADHD are frequently misdiagnosed with a learning disability, anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder instead. (2)
It’s not uncommon for adults to first become aware they’ve got ADHD when their own children are diagnosed. (3)
If you’ve ever wondered if you have this disorder, we’ll be taking a look at the signs and symptoms of ADHD and who is most at risk.
We’ll also cover what to expect from your doctor, plus natural, drug-free ADHD alternatives being used with some success.
But first, a quick rundown on why diagnosing and treating adult ADHD can be tricky.
Understanding ADHD — It’s Complicated
The medical community doesn’t agree on exactly what ADHD is, what causes it, or how to treat it.
They can’t even decide what to call it!
This disorder has gone through several name changes.
Recently, the name was changed from ADD (attention deficit disorder) to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Many in the field aren’t happy with this new nomenclature since girls and adults rarely exhibit the hyperactivity component.
It’s been labeled everything from a disorder or a disease, to merely bad behavior and lack of willpower.
Most experts believe it’s largely genetic but others believe it’s caused by environmental factors such as nutritional deficiencies and toxin exposure.
Some experts think that too many adults and children are being put on medications for ADHD, while others think that more people could benefit from taking ADHD drugs. (4)
Many adults who have ADHD also have other mental disorders which makes it hard to untangle which came first. (5)
Having ADHD isn’t all bad.
Many attention deficit adults are extremely intelligent, energetic, and creative.
Some of the most common traits of ADHD — restlessness, curiosity, resilience, an innate sense of adventure, and the ability to multitask — can be successfully leveraged as strengths. (6)
Some notable examples of highly successful people with ADHD include the most fun-loving billionaire on the planet Sir Richard Branson, Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, and theoretical physicist Steven Hawking.
The list of super achievers throughout history that exhibited signs of ADHD is a long one that includes Albert Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, and Walt Disney. (9)
But for every Richard Branson, there are millions of people whose lives have been seriously disrupted by their ADHD.
Adults with ADHD are more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status, failed relationships, and engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking or substance abuse. (10)
There is little that health care professionals agree on other that ADHD is a complex neurological disorder.
It’s largely agreed that the underlying cause of adult ADHD might be an abnormality in the function of dopamine.
That sounds logical since dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that helps you stay focused.
Most medications given for ADHD work on this principle.
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But a recent study at University of Cambridge puts this theory in question. (11)
Their research suggests that the main cause of the disorder may lie instead in structural differences in the grey matter in the brain.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future, particularly since ADHD medications are based on the dopamine deficiency hypothesis.
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Adult ADHD Symptoms
If you suspect you or a loved one has ADHD, here are some of the ways it can manifest in everyday life.
- You have trouble getting organized. You’re often late. You constantly misplace things.
- Your relationships suffer. You’ve been accused of not listening and honoring commitments by the people you care about.
- You can be impulsive, irritable, and impatient and sometimes express it in angry outbursts or by blurting out things you regret later.
- You’ve been called reckless or a thrill seeker. You like to gamble. You may have had extramarital affairs.
- You may like to drive too fast and have had more than your share of traffic tickets and accidents.
- You’re easily distracted, yet when something is of great interest to you, you can get focused to a fault, to the exclusion of everything else.
- You’re a serious procrastinator. You have a hard time starting, and finishing, projects.
- It seems like you have to work harder and longer than other people to get the same amount of work done.
- You’re restless, you fidget, and you have a hard time relaxing.
You’re at increased risk for ADHD if it runs in your family, your mother smoked, drank alcohol, used drugs, or was exposed to toxins during pregnancy, or you were born prematurely. (12)
If these descriptions sound like you, you may want to consider taking an ADHD screening test at home.
ADHD Screening You Can Do at Home
As with other psychiatric conditions, there is no one definitive adult ADHD test that can give a conclusive diagnosis.
Diagnosis is based on symptoms (subjective phenomena experienced by the subject) and signs (objective evidence observable by others).
Diagnosing ADHD in adults can be even more challenging than in children.
Other health problems, certain medications, and other mental health disorders can cloud the issue by mimicking ADHD.
There are do-it-yourself screening tests designed to help you determine if you should consider seeing a health professional.
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The Jasper-Goldberg test is specifically designed to test for ADHD in adults.
You can take the test here:
Beware of tests that are created by drug companies.
They tend to steer people towards a diagnosis of ADHD since it’s in their best interest to do so.
Regardless of your test results, if you feel your symptoms are causing you significant problems with your career, relationships, or emotional well-being, you may want to get evaluated by a professional. (13)
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Conventional Adult ADHD Treatment
If you are diagnosed with ADHD, the usual treatment is prescription medication and possibly behavioral therapy.
Counterintuitively, prescription stimulants are used to treat ADHD.
It’s believed they work by increasing the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine while slowing down their rate of reabsorption. (14)
The five stimulants approved for treating adult ADHD are Adderall XR, Focalin XR, Vyvanse, Quillivant XR, and Concerta.
Ritalin, which is often prescribed for children with ADHD, is also used to treat adult ADHD symptoms.
There’s also one nonstimulant medication used — Strattera. (15)
SSRIs and other antidepressants are occasionally used with varying degrees of success.
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These medications are not without side effects.
Insomnia, nausea, loss of appetite, dry mouth, headaches, mood change, and tics are most common with hallucinations, paranoia, and mania reported less frequently. (16)
Medications when taken along with behavioral therapy are the most successful combination your doctor has to offer.
Therapy can help you get and stay organized, boost productivity, manage stress, control impulsive behaviors, and improve communication skills for better relationships.
Natural Remedies for ADHD
Medication can be helpful but it’s not a cure.
It doesn’t work for everyone, and even when it does help, it brings partial relief.
It typically does little to help symptoms of disorganization, forgetfulness, and procrastination — the very issues that cause the most headaches for people with ADHD. (17)
These drugs can have unpleasant side effects.
So it’s no surprise that many seek out natural remedies like diet, supplements, and meditation.
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While the medical establishment is very skeptical of alternative ADHD treatment options, patients are very receptive to them.
More than half of parents of children with ADHD report using complementary and alternative medicine remedies, including nutritional supplements, special diets, and art therapy to help their child’s attention problems.
Yet only 11% share this information with their doctors! (18)
As many as 80% of patients who use herbal preparations and other natural products regard these therapies as the primary treatment for their symptoms. (19)
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Nootropic brain supplements are growing ever more popular.
Nootropics are substances that can make you more focused, sharper, energized and productive.
That sounds good, but many of the products containing these substances are neither helpful nor harmless.
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Finding scientific studies that prove natural treatments can help ADHD is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Much of the mainstream information, including ADHD websites, is heavily geared towards promoting medication as the only proven treatment.
ADHD research is almost always funded by drug companies.
A good example of this is the European Consensus Statement on Diagnosis and Treatment of Adult ADHD which has 27 joint authors.
This major study concluded that Europe needs to spend more money diagnosing and treating adult ADHD, with prescription stimulants being the preferred treatment.
At the end of this study was a full page of “competing interests” — a list of authors who have received money from pharmaceutical companies including Eli Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen-Cilag and Novartis.
For an insider’s view on this topic, read what Dr. Keith Conner, the psychologist who put ADD on the map, is saying about his profession’s pill-pushing in the New York Times article The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular natural treatments being used with some success.
Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatrician and an allergist, wrote the original ADHD diet book, Why Your Child Is Hyperactive, in the 1970s.
He was the first to popularize the theory that artificial food additives cause ADHD.
To see if a change in diet can help your ADHD, start by avoiding processed foods.
Eating real (unprocessed) food will take you a long way towards cleaning up your diet to get rid of the worst offenders such as sugar, MSG, artificial sweeteners, and other artificial food additives.
This means largely avoiding any food that comes in a package, box or can, even if it comes from the “health” food store.
For many with ADHD, taking this approach is not enough since many unprocessed foods can still be a source of food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances.
You may need to do an elimination diet to see if you react negatively to common food allergens like dairy or wheat.
You’ll find guidance on how to do an elimination diet in our article ADHD and Diet: The Effect of Food on ADHD Symptoms.
Even if you eat a very healthy diet, our modern lifestyle is full of “brain drains” that increase nutritional needs — stress, air pollution, over-the-counter remedies, prescription drugs, chemicals in our food and water, and more.
While our nutritional needs have increased, our diets have become less nutritious.
Fruits and vegetables are grown in depleted soils and have been bred to taste better, be easier to store and ship, and be more productive, not for their nutritional content.
The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps and avoid many chronic diseases. (28)
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Hyperactivity, impulsiveness, inattention, and depressive symptoms can all be improved by simply taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement. (29)
It’s widely agreed that taking an omega-3 essential fatty acid supplement is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
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Your brain is 70% fat and omega-3s comprise a major structural component of the brain, but it’s estimated that 70% of us are omega-3 deficient. (30)
Omega-3s are an anti-inflammatory powerhouse and can help eliminate the brain inflammation that contributes to ADHD, anxiety, depression, and brain fog. (31)
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is an integral part of every brain cell membrane.
This phospholipid acts as your brain cells’ “gatekeeper” by regulating which nutrients get in and how waste gets out of your brain.
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Tryptophan is an essential amino acid needed to synthesize serotonin.
Both low levels of tryptophan and serotonin imbalances have been linked to ADHD.
Children with ADHD have 50% lower than average blood levels of tryptophan. (34)
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The University of Maryland Alternative and Complementary Medicine Guide recommends the following herbs for ADHD: (35)
- Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
- Valerian (Valerian officinalis)
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
Using homeopathic remedies for ADHD is as popular as it is controversial.
Homeopathic remedies are very dilute solutions, usually of plants, believed to work by stimulating your body’s own healing power.
They are popular because they are natural, relatively inexpensive, easy to take, and virtually side effect-free.
But there are many naysayers who claim they are useless or that they work “only” as a placebo. (36)
The placebo effect should never be underestimated!
The placebo effect is now recognized as the key to unlocking the brain’s “inner pharmacy.” (37)
As you can imagine, there are a lot fewer studies done on homeopathic remedies than on prescription drugs.
I’ve not seen any studies done on homeopathy for adults with ADHD, but one study done on children showed a significant improvement in symptoms. (38)
If you want to know more about homeopathy, the National Institute of Health offers some good, basic information here: Homeopathy: an Introduction.
Dr. John Ratey, renowned psychiatrist and bestselling author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has extensively studied the effects of physical exercise on the brain.
He found that exercise tempers ADHD symptoms by increasing the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which work to regulate the attention system.
Exercise raises the baseline levels of dopamine and norepinephrine by promoting the growth of new neurotransmitter receptors.
Meditation also shows significant promise in treating adult ADHD.
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Two-third of adults who meditate report a significant decline in inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, and an increase in self-organization, stress tolerance, and regulation of emotions. (39)
The Future of ADHD Treatment
If there is one thing that everyone agrees on, it’s that we really don’t know that much about what causes ADHD or how to treat it.
ADHD medications work by supporting dopamine production yet the latest research is disputing this idea.
Clearly the study of this disorder is in its infancy.
Since it is a rapidly growing problem, and there are billions of dollars at stake, you can expect a lot more research will be done going forward — and most of it will be sponsored by drug companies.
Sales of ADHD medications in 2012 were nearly $9 billion, which is a five-fold increase over the past 10 years. (45)
Some people will respond well to medication, but many won’t.
So the increase in interest in alternative treatments will continue to grow as well.
If you want to learn more about alternative treatments, pick up one of the books we’ve mentioned in this article.
You may also want to find a health practitioner you can trust.
An excellent resource is ADDitudemag.com.
Unlike most ADHD websites, ADDitude contains a wealth of information specifically for adults with ADHD.